Renewable Energy Is Powering Access To Learning

Published in Forbes Middle East, 30 July 2018

There are parts of the world where, when the electricity stops, learning too either slows down or stops entirely. During daylight hours, tropical humidity and heat can conspire against pupils trying to concentrate on what their teacher is saying. And if the school goes dark once the sun sets, no evening lessons can be held in the classrooms.

These are real problems for places like the Aouda Saadia School in Marrakesh, Morocco. However, having recently won a grant to implement a wide-ranging green energy programme, the students could soon have a solution to their problems.

Catering to girls from low-income families during the day and teaching literacy to local women in the evenings, the school is now planning to install solar water heaters, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and LED light bulbs to reduce how much energy it uses. Solar-powered air conditioning units will also be installed, as will new lamps to light the school at night, improving safety and security and enabling the night classes for local women to go ahead.

Funding is coming from the Global High Schools initiative, part of the Zayed Future Energy Fund. The wider prize has been running since 2009, with the education element launched in 2012. Since then grants of up to $100,000 have been handed out to almost 30 schools in 26 countries around the world. “The prize [has] enabled 17 million children to have access to school night classes using solar-powered lanterns,” claims Nawal Al-Hosany, director of the Zayed Future Energy Programme.

The support for Aouda Saadia school was announced in Abu Dhabi on 15 January 2018 as part of the latest round of awards during the World Future Energy Summit (WFES). As well as the heating and lighting, the school also plans to develop teaching modules, educational tools and training workshops for its students, as well as introducing improvements to its waste management system by installing composting bins and a solar pump.

Without the U.A.E. grant it is doubtful that much of this work would ever be done, given the school’s limited means—it says its parents’ association is only able to raise about $5 per student to finance improvement to its facilities.

In more affluent corners of the region, where funding pressures are not quite so imposing, there are initiatives underway to boost the use of renewables in schools.

In January 2018 a number of U.A.E. government bodies—including Expo 2020 Dubai, the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment and the Ministry of Education—launched a programme for local schools called Sustainability Champions to impress upon the nation’s youth the need to protect the environment. As an initial step, solar PV panels worth up to $136,000 will be installed in two schools before the programme is rolled out to others around the country. The first successful bidders are due to be named on 22 April, known as Earth Day.

Alya Al-Ali, director of youth connect at Expo 2020 Dubai, said the programme “is not only about providing photovoltaic panels to schools; it is about creating a meaningful legacy for sustainability in the U.A.E. through human development.” Although the programme is starting with two schools for now, it plans to soon welcome more.

Further up the Gulf in Bahrain, education and social awareness is also on the curriculum. The Bahrain Bayan School, a K-12 non-profit school in Isa Town that was set up in 1982, is developing a programme called EcoLab 360 to teach students and the surrounding community about the benefits of sustainable practices and technologies. The scheme will focus on what the school refers to as the ‘five Rs’: reduce, reuse, recycle, raise awareness and renewable energy.

In practical terms, this will involve installing a 50kW solar PV system, a 1kW wind turbine, a 192kWh battery storage system, a grey water recycling system capable of processing up to 30,000 litres a month, and a food waste recycling system capable of dealing with up to six tonnes a year of waste. The cost for all this is an estimated $123,000. Of that, around $24,600 will be covered by the school itself, with the rest coming from the Zayed Future Energy Fund.

The school says it ought to earn back its own investment within four years—a feasibility study carried out by its pupils found that the saving on its electricity bills could amount to up to $6,500 a year. However, the authorities see the main benefits as educational rather than financial. Some pupils are positively effusive about the potential. “This will be the solution to all our problems,” said one enthusiastic student in a video presentation made as part of the school’s bid for the grant.

With such projects, Middle East schools are joining in what is a growing global movement. From the likes of Project Green Schools in the U.S. to the Adiwiyata School Programme in Indonesia, there is a burgeoning awareness of and enthusiasm for more sustainable energy use among educational authorities and establishments.

Some initiatives are global in nature, such as the Eco-Schools programme run by the Foundation for Environmental Education, which operates in 51,000 schools across 67 countries. The scheme is running in ten countries in the Middle East and North Africa, from Morocco, where more than 1,600 schools are involved, to the U.A.E., which has 43 schools signed up.

Progress is also being made in green transport for pupils and teachers travelling to and from school. Here too, the region is coming up with some answers. At the WFES event in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar) and the local Hafilat Industry unveiled a working prototype of a zero-emissions bus designed specifically for hot climates. The EcoBus, which is due to undergo trials in the near future, has a range of 150km between charges.

This too is part of wider, global trend. “We are seeing an enormous ramp-up of e-buses,” noted Anja van Niersen, chief executive of Allegro, speaking at the International Renewable Energy Agency’s annual summit in Abu Dhabi a few days earlier.

For all the gains made to date, there is clearly much more that could be done. And the initiatives are arguably not stopping at the school gates.